AFRI in ACTION: An Electrifying Way to Wash Produce

An Electrifying Way to Wash Produce1According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illness sickens 48 million people (one out of every six Americans) every year. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites found in or on food cause more than 250 different diseases, sending 128,000 people to the hospital and killing 3,000 annually.

With AFRI support, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health are exploring ways to supercharge how we wash produce to eliminate dangerous pathogens like Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella. Instead of applying toxic chemicals or scrubbing with soap and water, they use super-tiny, electrified water droplets.

The researchers first create a very fine mist of “aerosolized water” and then pass that mist through an electrified field. The resulting drops of water are 25 nanometers in diameter, 4,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They remain suspended in the air because of the electric charge that they carry. When they bounce into microorganisms, they expel their charge and destroy the pathogens, and the aerosol reverts back into water vapor.

This new method has so far proven effective for killing off bacteria on tomatoes and stainless steel surfaces. Safety tests with laboratory mice demonstrated that inhaling the electrified mist had no harmful effects. The next steps will be to test the method with other foods while continuing to ensure the safety of the process. If this method’s promise holds, it can be an effective and relatively inexpensive way to eliminate foodborne pathogens and help maintain food’s freshness.